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Posted on Wed, Jan 23, 2013 : 6 a.m.

U.S. Churches: Is attendance up or down?

By Wayne Baker

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One of the most popular programs to build attendance among children 100 years ago were “Church Attendance Stamps.” Most popular in Great Britain, the trend crossed to America after World War I. In the 1920s, kids attending such churches were given pretty paperback stamp albums with a rectangle labeled for each Sunday of the Christian calendar. If you missed a Sunday, you missed that colorful stamp for the year!

Editor's note: This post is part of a series by Dr. Baker on Our Values about core American values. This week Dr. Baker is discussing U.S. churches.

Seven of 10 Americans are very or moderately religious, according to a Gallup poll last month. About 40% are very religious—they attend religious services on a regular basis and report that religion is important in their lives. America continues to defy the secularization trend, but it is not immune. Today, let’s look at …

Is worship attendance changing? If so, is it heading up or down?

Most U.S. congregations are not growing. Worship attendance at more than half of the congregations participating in the U.S. Congregational Life Survey shrank by 5 percent from 2003 to 2008. Fewer than 20 percent reported that their worship attendance increased by more than 5 percent in the same period. The rest of the congregations in the study were stable during this time.

(These and other facts are reported in the latest publication from the U.S. Congregation Life Survey, Leadership That Fits Your Church. I’ve been reporting on this data since Monday; you might also care to read an interview with the chief researcher.)

Decline, growth, and stability vary by denomination. All denominations experienced declining attendance, but more Protestant than Catholic congregations had this experience. Half of mainline Protestant (50 percent) and 54 percent of Conservative Protestant congregations saw declining worship attendance, while 42 percent of Catholic congregations experienced similar declines.

More Catholic congregations than mainline or Conservative Protestant congregations had stable worship attendance over time.

Growing attendance was not the norm for any denomination. But fewer Conservative Protestant congregations than mainline Protestant or Catholic congregations experienced increasing attendance. Only 18 percent of Conservative Protestant churches saw their attendance go up compared with 25 percent of mainline Protestant churches and 23 percent of Catholic churches.

If you attend church, what's your experience?

What do you think? Do you see attendance up, down, or stable?

Do you think religion in America is changing?

Wayne Baker is a sociologist on the faculty of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Baker blogs daily at Our Values and can be reached at or on Facebook.



Tue, Jan 29, 2013 : 3:33 a.m.

Attendance seems down. There was a bump I think due to the recession and as things have kind of improved fewer people seem to be attending. I hope religion can retain some of the better principles behind each faith while adapting with the times as we need to become more accepting of certain trends in human life as we evolve.